Chapter 1: The Star Builders CHAPTER 1 THE STAR BUILDERS
“If, indeed, the sub-atomic energy in the stars is being freely used to maintain their great furnaces, it seems to bring a little nearer to fulfilment our dream of controlling this latent power for the well-being of the human race, or for its suicide.”
—Arthur Eddington, “The Internal Constitution of the Stars,” 19201
Who are the fusion pioneers aiming, like Prometheus, to steal the secret of fire from the heavens? The individuals who are bold enough—some might say “crazy enough”—to try to bring star power to Earth? Throughout this book we’ll be meeting them and learning why they’ve dedicated their lives to the fusion dream.
The first star builder I meet as I try to find out who is ahead in the nuclear race is Dr. Mark Herrmann, the gentle-mannered director of the National Ignition Facility (NIF) based at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
Like everyone I meet here at NIF, Mark opens our conversation by stressing that managing the United States’ stockpile of nuclear weapons is the primary mission of both NIF and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The scientists here are tasked with maintaining America’s nuclear deterrent and understanding how aging nuclear weapons deteriorate over time. This is why the entire site is protected by armed guards and lined with serious-looking double fences. As I walked along Livermore’s winding paths to get to my meeting with Mark in the NIF visitors’ center, I passed numerous other buildings that were strictly no entry for those without security clearance. Inside, the weapons secrets of the most powerful nuclear state on Earth are held. The combination of high security and the brightly colored visitors’ center might seem incongruous, but everyone I talk to is friendly and seems to have found peace with their responsibilities, Mark especially.
Livermore does a vast range of science in addition to weapons research and nuclear fusion; super-computing, climate change, and the creation and discovery of new elements (including livermorium, which is named after the lab). Make no mistake, this is big science—NIF alone has 650 staff who are managed, ultimately, by Mark. I begin by asking him how close the lab is to demonstrating net energy gain.
“By the end of the 2020s we’ll have achieved ignition or have an ignition facility under construction,” he says, his eyebrows jumping above the rim of his thick glasses to make the point. “Ignition” means a high net energy gain from nuclear fusion in which the reactions really take off and become self-sustaining, like a roaring fire. Mark has been working on unlocking energy from atoms for more than two decades, and leading NIF since 2014. Although he has graying hair and a salt-and-pepper goatee, he’s full of energy and enthusiasm for NIF’s mission.
Mark was previously employed at the Sandia National Laboratory, where he was the director of the Z Pulse Power Facility, another machine that combines classified and open science. When I ask why he’s at NIF, he tells me that he got into fusion research because of the interesting science and the long-term benefit for humanity. His first step in the field was completing his PhD in 1998 at Princeton and writing an award-winning thesis on the rival magnetic confinement approach. Shortly after, he joined Livermore to work on inertial confinement fusion.
Despite Livermore’s focus on stockpile stewardship, one of the laboratory’s long-term goals is inertial fusion energy, and always has been since its founding in 1952. Mark is clear that NIF is the world’s best hope for understanding fusion, and he tells me that it’s the only facility that has the prospect of achieving net energy gain in the next decade. That’s controversial given that other fusion laboratories and start-ups are claiming that they’re ahead. Earlier in the day, Dr. Bruno Van Wonterghem, NIF’s operations manager, told me that the extent to which Livermore is explicitly pursuing fusion has gone through “highs and lows,” perhaps hinting that the political weather might be why everyone I spoke to began our conversation by telling me the primary objective was maintaining the United States’ nuclear arsenal.
I ask Mark about the tension between managing nuclear weapons and pursuing fusion energy. “Holistically it’s all stockpile stewardship.” What he means is that the physics of fusion reactions is similar whether those reactions are occurring in a thermonuclear weapon, in a fusion reactor, or in space.
One person in particular is representative of the strides that NIF has made since 2013, and is also most emblematic of the paradox of mass destruction and planet-saving energy provision that characterizes Livermore’s portfolio: Dr. Omar Hurricane, NIF’s chief scientist. You’d be forgiven for thinking that he was the star of an action film with a name like that; as it is, he’s something of a star in the inertial confinement fusion community. His thesis advisor was the UK’s previous star builder–in-chief Professor Sir Steve Cowley, but after Omar finished his PhD at UCLA in 1994, he left magnetic confinement fusion in favor of an inertial confinement fusion job at Lawrence Livermore.
“I got hired into the weapons program instead,” he tells me, as we sit down to talk. He was irked by his rejection but made the most of the unexpected career he found himself in. After nuclear testing ended in 1992, a different type of stockpile stewardship was required. “How can we be confident about certifying the nuclear stockpile,” Omar says, “when we’re not doing experiments anymore? That led to the stockpile stewardship program, my generation.” He was involved in extending the lifetime of the W87, a thermonuclear bomb that is used in intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Omar isn’t afraid of celebrating his successes: “I’m pretty good at making mathematical models of things, even things that aren’t my area,” he says, and explains that, following the worse-than-expected performance of fusion experiments at NIF, “the director of the lab saw it wasn’t going well and asked me and a few others from the weapons program, ‘Would you be willing to jump in and help?’ And so I jumped in with other colleagues. The experiments were quite successful [and in] late 2013, early 2014, we started getting some exciting results. All of a sudden, I got asked whether I wanted to be chief scientist.”
Under Omar’s leadership, laser fusion experiments performed at NIF in 2018 released sixty times the energy of experiments on the same machine in 2011. But NIF isn’t the only front-runner with decades of experience in nuclear fusion.
Five thousand miles away, a UK government laboratory called the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy has the latest iteration in a line of fusion machines that goes back decades. It’s now the world’s leading operational magnetic fusion facility. Unlike Livermore or Sandia in the USA, Culham doesn’t do classified weapons science. The site isn’t protected by armed guards, although on my way in I did see some pretty mean-looking ducks. Star power is the sole mission.
Professor Ian Chapman leads both the laboratory and the UK Atomic Energy Authority, the arm’s-length civil service organization tasked with star building. Ian Chapman is exactly what you’d expect if you crossed a scientist with a civil servant. He wears a suit and tie (unusual for scientists), but it’s out of respect for the seniority of his position rather than pretense. He has close-shaved hair and a broad grin. He’s thoughtful, talkative, and polite, but he’s also not one to mince his words. That’s useful if you’re trying to steer a fifteen-hundred-person laboratory. Most of his staff are scientists, each with their own interests, and I imagine the internal management of Culham involves a degree of cat-herding. He sees his role in leading the world’s largest (for now) magnetic fusion experiment as a duty, though he clearly misses being in the details.
“I’m chief executive and my role here is fundraising, stakeholder management, dealing with the government, Brexit”—he chuckles, acknowledging the scale of that particular challenge for Culham, whose biggest fusion experiment is funded directly by the European Commission—“all that not very fun stuff.”
We’re talking in Chapman’s office, which, despite his responsibilities, looks like the inside of an office trailer on a building site. The only hints that it might not be are the equations on the whiteboard. Ian is another award-winning scientist, having bagged the latest of many trophies in 2017 for research on the stability of magnetic fusion experiments. I ask him about the prize and he’s characteristically self-deprecating.
“I used to be a scientist—yeah, I just received an award for science I used to do. I spent thirteen years doing proper science, but I’ve written off doing any real work while Brexit is happening, as that’s going to occupy me for years.”
It’s worth noting that the award was for outstanding early career
research. Ian has risen remarkably fast. He went from finishing his PhD in 2008, to making groundbreaking contributions to science, to running the world’s most successful fusion experiment in less than a decade.2
Given his inexperience, his appointment was described by some as a risk.
“It’s a risk in that I didn’t have decades of experience running big organizations with thousands of people. Conversely, had you appointed someone who knew how to organize but didn’t have a passion and a knowledge about fusion, you’d be taking a risk at the other end. It’s clear that I have a passion about fusion. I’m also the right age profile to make it happen, shall we say,” the thirty-eight-year-old adds, smiling.
Culham’s biggest machine currently holds the world record for fusion energy. Chapman has a plan to push it even further than before. “I’m hoping we can smash our record,” he has said.3
Established star builders like Mark Herrmann and Ian Chapman face stiff competition from elsewhere: the Cambrian explosion of private fusion firms. Like the industrialists of the early twentieth century, these challengers are less concerned with the science than in making the machines work. They reject the “bigger is better” paradigm that is conventional wisdom in fusion physics. Instead, they’re developing smaller and, they argue, more practical machines. Increasingly, investors are committing their cash to this scaled-down, simplified approach—though of course no fusion device is without vast complexity.
One such efficiency-emphasizing operation is Tokamak Energy. Although Tokamak Energy’s scientists and engineers are following the lead of Culham in using magnets to trap the stuff of stars, they believe their machine is a smarter way of doing it. Not only are they aiming to demonstrate that they can reach the conditions for fusion soon, they want to deliver power to the grid by 2030. This ambitious plan will involve mastering new intricacies in not just physics, but engineering and economics too. In 2020, Tokamak Energy received $13 million from the British government and another half a million dollars from the US Department of Energy to bring this plan to fruition.4
Fusion start-ups such as Tokamak Energy are ending the dominance of physics, and physicists, in the field. Tokamak Energy’s chief executive, Jonathan Carling, is the quintessential engineer determined to turn fusion from a science project into a bona fide power source. On the day of my visit I meet him over tea and biscuits in a room cut out of Tokamak Energy’s industrial warehouse headquarters. Jonathan is unlike the incumbents in the star-building business in that he’s never worked in fusion before. But he has
taken big, complex engineering designs into commercial production.
“I came to be here because my background is in engineering and operations, and the business has reached a stage where it’s very focused on how we make this a commercial reality, not just how we demonstrate an energy gain of one-point-zero-something, but how we actually develop a commercial device.”
His record speaks for itself. His career began when he apprenticed at Jaguar to work on car engines, but he says that his passion for making technology work began much earlier.
“I became an engineer when I was about six,” he tells me. “We used to get drawing to do and I drew a car and my teacher would say ‘What’s that sticking out of the [hood]?’ and I said, ‘That’s a super-charger.’ At six years old, I was fascinated by machines, and I was always pulling things to bits and wanted to learn about them. So I did a mechanical engineering degree.”
After Jaguar, Jonathan went to another high-end car firm, Aston Martin, and became the chief operating officer. Not content with the complexity of cars, not to mention people, he then switched to aerospace at Rolls-Royce. If you’ve ever been on a plane, there’s a really good chance that you’ve been jetted around by an engine that Carling had a hand in. At my insistence, he reels off a list: the Airbus 380, 350, and 330, the Boeing 747, 777, and 767.
“Jet engines run hot all the time, and the intake temperature can be of the order of two thousand Kelvin, which is three hundred degrees or so above the melting temperature of the turbine that is extracting the power,” he tells me, going on to explain how such a feat is possible with clever engineering. If it sounds impressive, it’s nothing compared to what a working fusion reactor will need. So why did he swap two thousand degrees Kelvin for 150 million?
“The world doesn’t need another luxury sports car as much as it needs fusion energy,” he says.
There are start-ups pursuing the inertial confinement approach too, which as a reminder uses a trigger, often laser beams, to crush matter into a hot, dense blob that provides good conditions for fusion reactions to occur. One firm is on the other side of Oxford, just seventeen miles up the road from Tokamak Energy and in their own rather more swanky warehouse. They are First Light Fusion; their name refers to the light emitted by matter as it gets hot enough for fusion.
Dr. Nick Hawker, the CEO and CTO of First Light Fusion, is another engineer steering fusion toward reality. He’s young, having founded First Light directly after completing his PhD at Oxford. He has a very different style from the older bureaucrats of fusion, like Mark Herrmann and Ian Chapman. Nick wears sneakers, chinos, and solid-color T-shirts with a blazer over the top. He’s sharp and a bit intense, with a restrained entrepreneurial energy. Someone who decides to take on not one, but two of the key roles in an organization might be conceited. Yet, unusually, Hawker’s company has managed to raise enough money for a four-year plan. And his generally older and more experienced staff look up to him with a hint of reverence. When I finally speak to him at the end of a long day at First Light’s headquarters, I’m full of anticipation. Hawker answers my questions in clipped sentences and rarely cracks a smile throughout our conversation; he’s all business.
He tells me that, as CEO, his job is forging links with potential industrial partners and academia. But he seems to be involved with every aspect of the company and likes getting his hands dirty. His Twitter feed is full of results from First Light’s star machine, replete with video clips of experimental equipment exploding. One post shows a photograph of a thick metal plate with a hole punched right through, another a video of a 7 mega-ampere (25 million times more current than an old-fashioned filament bulb) short circuit.
I ask him about his dual role, and he says that it’s all about managing the personalities on the team so that they’re pointing in the same direction. “I’m on the pitch too,” he quips, referring to getting directly involved in the science via his CTO role.
And well he might get involved in the science. Nick has taken his work in Oxford’s engineering department, simulating extreme conditions in fluids, and made it the core of a new approach to fusion. That’s risky, but it also presents new possibilities for net energy gain that, he argues, might have been overlooked by the big laboratories, who tend to play it safe.
Certainly, decades of mainstream magnetic and inertial confinement fusion have continually surprised scientists with problems that couldn’t have been anticipated. But technology has also moved on, and fusion scientists can now combine simulation and theory in ways that would have been unthinkable ten years ago. “The real goal is to validate the simulations,” Nick stresses, echoing what Jonathan Carling also told me. To keep up the funding to get their fusion schemes over the line, the start-ups need to show that they’re credible, and that means showing that their models are capable of describing reality.
The big motivations for Nick seem to be those that have driven countless entrepreneurs before him: success and money. He believes that these will come faster in a private fusion venture.
“I’m very glad that we did go private because look how far we got,” he tells me. Not only does Nick live this paradigm, he has championed entrepreneurship in the press and mentored others starting businesses. He really believes that when it comes to technological progress, his way is the best way.
Nick Hawker is counting on getting to a net-energy-gain experiment by 2024. He tells me First Light Fusion is about to reach the temperatures where fusion reactions become detectable, a first step on the path to this ambition.5
First Light Fusion fits into the inertial confinement fusion bucket. There are fewer start-ups using this approach, the most prominent examples being New Jersey’s LPP Fusion and Canadian-based General Fusion. The other start-ups using the magnetic field approach include Lockheed Martin, TAE Technologies, Commonwealth Fusion Systems, and Renaissance Fusion. They’re all looking to challenge the big players of NIF and Culham with their greater agility and more focused objectives.
It doesn’t matter which star builder you talk to. All passionately believe that their scheme will be the first to deliver energy to the grid. But they can’t all
be right. Some are over-promising. And the path to fusion energy is littered with failed promises, so, in a way, it’s surprising not to hear more modesty.
Despite having his own ambition to surpass records for fusion energy, Ian Chapman believes that the new competition is essential and inevitable: “I’m very supportive of all of their endeavors, and indeed we work with a lot of private companies.” But he does acknowledge that the start-ups can create problems and may not be as far down the road as they think they are.
The government labs may still have a few tricks up their sleeve too. They’re not incapable of innovating, and they have lots of people with the right skills to do so. Both magnetic confinement fusion, at Culham, and inertial confinement fusion, at Los Alamos National Laboratory, have smaller, highly experimental fusion schemes.
Perhaps the most impressive government “start-up” machine is the Wendelstein 7-X, recently opened by Angela Merkel in Greifswald, Germany. It’s run as part of the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics, which has eleven hundred employees and also operates a tokamak. W7X, as those in the know call it, has been making rapid progress by revisiting an idea right from the start of the fusion era, the stellarator (an Escher-like tangle of tubes that traps fusion fuel with twisting magnetic fields), with modern technology. Serving as the institute’s scientific director is Professor Sibylle Günter, an experienced academic star builder whose work on topics related to fusion began in the 1990s. It was the connection of fusion with her corner of northeast Germany that drew her in. When she discovered that W7X would be built near her hometown of Rostock, she decided to learn more.
Sibylle steadily ascended the ranks, becoming head of theory (a position for which seriously strong mathematical ability is required), then a director, and finally, in 2011, the scientific director. “I saw how important good management is and how much it takes to secure a sufficient budget,” she tells me digitally as we cope with a coronavirus-induced lockdown. “By being the director I have many opportunities to influence our big projects and I can change those things I only complained about earlier.”
Although she describes herself as a very impatient person, Sibylle is understated; the consummate professional scientist giving both sides of the argument and being honest about any limitations. When I ask how she feels about achieving fusion, she says, “The pressure is quite strong” but adds that, despite it, she still strives to ensure careful work and good scientific procedures. She thinks that, in the long run, the stellarator design of W7X could make a more viable energy-producing fusion reactor than tokamaks like Ian Chapman’s machine at Culham.
Although everyone disagrees about how
, star builders do agree that the fusion future we’ve all been promised for so long is (almost) here. Net energy gain especially. “The key message isn’t about us,” Jonathan Carling told me. “The key message is that fusion is coming much faster than most people think.”
“It’s not science fiction; it’s going to be solved in the next decade,” Nick Hawker said. “?‘Solved’ means it’s working. It’s going to take longer for a power plant, but the joke that fusion is ‘thirty years away’—no, it’s here. The thirty years are done and it’s going to be solved in the next decade.”
Ian Chapman, who leads the UK Atomic Energy Authority, said: “Fusion will
work. It will
There’s just one more star builder I need to introduce you to: me. Well, former
star builder: I worked on nuclear fusion research at Imperial College until 2015, when I left to become a researcher in economics in the public sector. Since then, I’ve been looking at star builders from the outside. In that time it has struck me that, more than ever, the rest of the world deserves to know what this motley bunch of scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs is up to. This book is intended to help accomplish that.
It’s clear from talking to the star builders that they aren’t just creating fusion devices to show that they can master one of the universe’s most fundamental reactions, as important a breakthrough as that might be scientifically. They’re doing it because taming nuclear fusion might
just save the planet.